I regret not writing as much now as I did before the election. When I ask myself why, I come up with a complicated set of reasons. Few of them reflect well on me as a citizen or human being. They range from the situational and emotional (my father having died recently) through the characterological (I hate conflict, so how will I survive the intense political conflicts of the Trump years?) on up to the super-structural (both the parties are defunct and I really think the only way forward is to create a new party). The thought of how much we will all have to pivot and struggle in order to re-energize, re-organize, and purify our politics overwhelms me. And, to be honest, I wonder whether we even have it in us as a society, to purify American politics, to cultivate a new generation of moral and responsive leaders, and to keep our nation and culture from sliding swiftly downhill.
After all, the political problems we confront can’t be blamed on a single person. The creepy manifestations of decline emanating from the Trump White House and from Capitol Hill stem from a dysfunctional culture and institutions no longer organized effectively in support of the noble form of government that we inherited. To make our politics praiseworthy again is going to take a massive jolt of collective energy. Just as important, to transform our existing institutions, Americans are going to have to formulate and rally around a newly urgent set of principles and goals.
The burned-over district: In the nineteenth-century, the western section of New York State became known as “the burned-over district,” because of its unusual susceptibility to religious revivals. Before the rise of the social sciences, Americans were collectively more inclined to see the hand of God at work in human history. They were more likely to praise “the Almighty” or “Providence” when experiencing prosperity and to see adverse events (such as Trump’s election) as a divine punishment for society’s failings. In western New York, such a mentality led both to religious enthusiasms and to a forward-looking social activism that fueled Americans’ determination to secure votes for women and freedom for slaves.
While not wholly efficacious in themselves, such movements inspired much ideological ferment and in time impelled major changes in the platforms of the political parties. Leading Republicans of the Civil War era, like William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Charles Sumner, were undoubtedly inspired and influenced by the high-minded spiritualism associated with “the burned-over district.” The United States could use some of that same pure, high-minded fervor today.
Image: Casimir Bohn’s “View of Washington City and Georgetown” (1849), from this source.
The nauseating staleness of partisan politics is a disgrace to the American intellect and a nation fond of thinking it’s great.
Whether one ponders the intransigence gripping the Capitol or the never-ending corruption strangling government at every level in Illinois, one sees the evils of a too-entrenched party system—a system that can only be shaken up by innovative third parties, bringing with them new ideological visions and the threat of competition.
Much of what appears on Our Polity springs from the conviction that our political parties are poorly positioned for the challenges the US faces. The parties are entrenched bureaucracies, most concerned about their own futures as institutions, with the fate of the Republican Party, in particular, now overshadowing its members’ patriotism and concern for the country.
Our political system need not remain in this state. Throughout time, the electorate’s loyalties have been organized around many other platforms, goals, and ideas. In the early part of our history, firm party loyalties didn’t even exist. Instead, coalitions of voters formed and re-formed dynamically around the most promising ideas and leaders. In the seventy-some years before the Civil War, many political parties and factions came to life, fluidly combining and recombining with others to advance some vital cause or interest, catapulting their standard-bearers to prominence before they died.
Many of our greatest statesmen, including such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Charles Sumner, and Abraham Lincoln, rose to power as the stars of parties that no longer exist. Instead, parties of adherents amassed around their far-seeing talent and ideas, giving them the political power and authority that they needed.
When I’m despondent about the state of American politics today, I think back to these other by-gone parties, which bespeak other ideological visions around which American politics could be organized.
What about the short-lived Whig Party, for example, which flourished in the early 19th century and was a bridge between the too-aristocratic Federalist party (d. circa 1820) and the anti-federal Republican Party (b. circa 1860) we have today? The Whigs were a progressive party: they were pro-business, but they saw federalism as a positive force necessary to bind up the wayward states into a nation that was both powerful and refined. Whigs were sophisticated and cosmopolitan. They stood in opposition to the Democrats, who were the states-rights, laissez-faire proponents of the time. The Whigs championed independence and personal prosperity, but they thought that individual opportunity could be best safeguarded and maximized through the agency of an active federalism. Yet they differed from present-day Democrats in being the foes of corruption and a patronage state.
The constellation of ideas that animated the Whigs is only one instance of a different ideology that Americans could be using to reorganize their politics now. The purpose of political parties is to organize large masses of voters around constructive and unifying national goals. Since both the Democrats and Republicans have lost their power to thrill, rising talents would be wise to conjure up new partiesnow.
Image: Friedrich Graetz’s 1882 lithograph, “The Political Sodom and Gomorrah Are Doomed to Destruction,” shows the angel of a new party leading political honesty and wisdom out of the fires of public condemnation consuming the Republican and Democratic parties.
From this source.
Can corporate models teach us anything about political change? One of the problems politically active Americans face today is that the Republican and Democratic parties are organized around outmoded ideas (a topic I’ve written a lotaboutalready). Yet what do we know about how to bring new political ideas to market? How do we introduce better ways and ideas to a political marketplace that, for over a century, has been dominated by just two parties?
The Instagram/Polaroid analogy
I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading a smart article by Nick Bilton about Instagram, the digital photo-sharing start-up that Facebook paid $1 billion to acquire. The hallmark of an Instagram is its resemblance to an old-fashioned Polaroid.
What interested Bilton was why a start-up had brought this idea to market, rather than an old-line camera company like Kodak or Polaroid. These were, after all, the towering pioneers of innovative film processing. Polaroid, in particular, had made its name developing a camera and film process that allowed people to make and share their photographs instantly. For decades, Kodak and Polaroid were cash cows, dominating the markets that sprang up around their own innovative technologies.
Yet, amid the onslaught of digital technology, neither proved able to change enough. Though the market for their products had been dwindling for decades, neither company managed to make the transition to digital. Today, both companies are teetering on the brink of death, while Instagram has grown rich and famous on the strength of images with a “Polaroid feel.”
Bilton concluded that the success breeds constraints that make established companies hesitant to embrace the next new idea. Companies become wedded to the ideas that brought them to the top. They develop cultures aimed at perpetuating the gains that have already been made. Having once brought a new idea to market, the resulting business rightly views the next new idea or technology as disruptive.
A company dependent on profits from an existing technology will have trouble compromising that in order to capitalize on the next new thing. As one of Bilton’s sources observes, “It’s tough to change the fan belt when the engine is running.” (And didn’t Bill Gates once admit to being terrified of the next unknown, tinkering with a new idea in his garage?)
The analogy applies to the political scene
This is exactly how I think about the political scene, whose very landscape the Democratic and Republican parties have shaped. These two parties became dominant because, at crucial points in our history, they supplied ideas and platforms that were right for the time. The visions and forms of action they proposed were ones around which millions of citizens could organize.
Support for the major parties is dwindling because they rely on outmoded ideas. They sell products many of us have no interest in buying. An estimated 30 percent of voters are not aligned with either party, making each “major” party a minority.
Yet, structurally, the parties deter competition. Though ideologically moribund, the Republican and Democratic parties are vigorous institutions. They are known entities. They have millions of adherents, and familiar brand names. They’re well capitalized. And they sit atop vast hierarchies of state and local organizations that penetrate into every ward and district of the country. Every political event in the US is understood and described in terms of these two entities, a sure sign of their authority.
These behemoths are more interested in maintaining market share than in changing their offerings. Too much newness carries risk, just as it did for Kodak and Polaroid. There may be a broad constituency out there, clamoring for new political leadership, but the major parties will view as a disruption any force hoping to reinvigorate politics by espousing a new ideology.
The calcified rhetoric of our politicians and their parties is strangely at odds with the political ferment of the time. All around lies evidence of amazing levels of political activism and concern, whether on the left or the right, whether in populist movements like Occupy or the Tea Party, or in the billions of comments, tweets, and posts that Americans generate in political conversation every day.
Unlike in business, how ideas move from the bottom to the top of the political hierarchy is incredibly murky. Yet anyone who wants to get this country into better political shape needs to take an interest in the how of political change.
Image: A Polaroid Land Camera 1000, courtesy of the photographer, Chris Lüders, from this source.
We’ve had many third-party movements over the last century, but none has achieved national dominance; few have proved lasting. In fact, third-party candidates do not win elections. As Peter Kiernan observes in his book, Becoming China’s Bitch (poorly written but interesting), whenever third-party candidates or their ideas begin to gain traction, the major parties co-opt them. Individuals who run as third-party candidates without having a true national party organization behind them are doomed to be remembered as irritating spoilers. The so-called independent candidate—whether wealthy or quixotic—is wasting our time.
Creating a lasting third party in the US could be accomplished, but it would take at least a decade. The new party would have to be ideologically distinct from the existing parties—perhaps even inimical to them—, yet moderate enough in its outlook to gain traction in the mainstream. In addition, the viability of such a party would have to be proved at the state level first. A new party solidly established in several of the largest, wealthiest, and most diverse states—say Florida, New York, Texas, and California—might have a hope of success nationally.